Rehman Chishti is the MP for Gillingham and Rainham and a former Adviser to Benazir Bhutto.
After 10 months of brutal repression, the grip of Syria’s regime may be beginning to weaken. A few weeks back, a defecting Syrian MP told journalists that it could survive for just two more months; estimating the regime would collapse within three. Since the end of last year the Arab League has been imposing trade sanctions on Syria and European Union foreign ministers are planning new sanctions against Assad’s regime; the economy is in free-fall. Coupled with this, increasing numbers of government security forces are defecting to the opposition Free Syrian Army who appear to be gaining ground in the struggle for control of Syrian towns. For the opposition, this is a moment of immense opportunity. However, divisions within the movement could result in it slipping away and I believe there can be no long term effective change unless the opposition groups can come together. Although I accept some opposition parties have done so as apparent on one Friday demonstration dedicated to the Syrian National Council (SNC), where all demonstrators came under the umbrella of the SNC, unless a significant proportion of the opposition unite, Syria faces a bleak future.
President Assad is playing a very clever delaying tactic, for instance, he has agreed to the Arab League’s demand for monitors; however these monitors are short in number and cannot cover the whole country. The presence of the monitors has not stopped the mass killing of innocent people. Therefore it is no surprise that we saw the Saudi Arabian Government along with other GCC countries withdraw their monitors. Also President Assad, is playing to the divisions within the Arab League, with countries such as Lebanon distancing itself from any international intervention. Iraq from the outset has always been very hesitant to support international action until the very last meeting of the Arab League, and Algeria has made clear its reservations in supporting any move to request the matter be referred to the United Nations. Another point to bear in mind is that Qatar gives up the Presidency of the Arab League in March to Iraq, a country with close links to Iran, which will play into the hands of President Assad, due to Syria’s close ties to Iran.
Even though opposition parties have been banned in Syria since 1963 under emergency legislation, there are more than 30 parties and opposition groups in Syria operating mainly underground, as well as groups based outside Syria particularly in Turkey and France. Perhaps the most well known currently is the aforementioned Syrian National Council which was formed as a result of the uprising in Syria. The SNC is mainly based outside Syria with its leader Burhan Ghalioun living in Paris and already comprises a number of the opposition groups. These include the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest party in Syria, who state that they want a pluralist system and to offer the public a programme based on Islam at elections. It also contains the Syrian Revolution General Commission, which is an organisation of committees set up during the present unrest and the Co-ordinations of the Syrian Revolution comprising of activists working in Syria, leading current demonstrations and protests against Assad. The SNC calls for the overthrow of the Assad family, wants a partial no-fly zone to create a safe area as they do not want a complete destruction of Syria's air defences, to maintain security institutions and is not opposed to foreign military intervention. They refuse to engage with Assad unless it is in order to arrange a transfer of power and in the past has rejected the Arab League sponsored compromise deal with the government.
The other main opposition body in Syria is the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) composed of opposition activists in Syria tolerated by the regime. Unlike the SNC they are open to dialogue with the regime, and wish to effect change through engagement with Assad involving the Arab League. However, they oppose the internationalisation of Syrian crisis and reject foreign intervention bar the presence of the Arab League observer mission which had been allowed in as a result of deal with the Syrian government.
In addition to these two main umbrella groups, sources in the diplomatic world have informed me about a number of other opposition groups which could be considered effective and have representation in Syria. These include a number of Kurdish parties formed into different groups including The Kurdish Democratic Alliance and The Kurdish Democratic Front. Broadly these groups call for political autonomy and rights for the Kurds in Syria and have been strongly repressed by the Syrian government. The Justice and Development Party was established in London by the son of an Islamist and is active inside Syria. It broadcasts against Assad and has a well know blog which also regularly attacks the Assad regime. There is also the Syrian Communist Party which has changed its name to become the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, however, it is not particularly popular in Syria and is losing ground to the Islamists.
Finally, somewhat separate from the parties opposing the Baathist regime, is the previously mentioned Free Syrian Army based in Turkey; comprising of a group of army defectors. According to General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, who recently defected, an estimated 20,000 soldiers have changed sides. The group is endorsed by the SNC and it has, in theory, accepted the SNC’s leadership. However, in practice, it operates relatively independently mounting guerrilla operations against Assad’s rule.
There is a good precedent for groups resolving tensions and coming together to form a united opposition against a current regime. The most recent and perhaps pertinent example of this is in Libya and the National Transitional Council (NTC). The NTC was formed early on in the Libyan conflict, consisted of a number Gaddafi’s opponents and described itself as the face of the revolution. The NTC showed a commitment to a more open and democratic Libya and worked to achieved an inclusive political process reaching out to Libyans across the country. In August 2011 the NTC produced a Constitutional Declaration which established a road map for the transition of the country to a constitutional democracy. Currently the opposition in Syria is reported to be more disorganised and divided than in Libya before the fall of Gaddafi. It is suggested that the Foreign Secretary William Hague has met with representatives from both the SNC and the NCC and said it was important for the opposition groups to form a united front and asked the opposition to organise themselves and present a set of coherent policies.
Another older example of the opposition uniting is in South Africa during the 1980s and early 1990s. The international community began to put pressure on the regime to end apartheid, imposing economic trade sanctions as well as other sanctions such as banning its participation in international sporting events. The key opposition in South Africa was the African National Congress (ANC) which adopted a more conciliatory tone against the government in the late 1980s. This coupled with external pressure led the then president Frederik Willem de Klerk of the National Party to lift the ban on the ANC and other opposition political parties and organisations, paving the way for the end of apartheid. The ANC formed a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions and in the 1994 general election won by a landslide under Nelson Mandela.
I remember from my time working for Benazir Bhutto just how hard bringing the opposition together might be. Even though it is the norm for opposition parties to fight and stand against one another, in order to institute change they must come together. This was also the case in 2006 when Ms Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party signed the Charter of Democracy with Nawaz Sharif leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, along with a number of other political parties outlining the steps to challenge and end the military rule of General Musharraf. This agreement eventually led to the dismissal of military rule in 2008 and the emergence of the Democratic Government in Pakistan. Ms Bhutto paid a personal sacrifice for the restoration of democracy, as did her Party and country, but you need strong leaders to bring change. Equally discussions with the military had to be had for the transition to democracy. I also recognise the important role of the international community in bringing parties together, as I accompanied Ms Bhutto to meetings with International Diplomats, and meetings with Foreign Ministers which helped facilitate this co-operation.
It is now time for the Syrian opposition to stand united even though it is diverse in range. The SNC and the NCC have already demonstrated a willingness to negotiate, with an initial attempt to charter a road-map to democracy introduced at the end of December. The deal collapsed due to pressure on Ghalioun from within the SNC who disagreed with the conditions ruling out any international military intervention. Compromises will need to be made between the various groups; the SNC should perhaps be more willing to negotiate with Assad and the NCC need to be more open to the idea of international intervention. It is probable the international community will have a bigger role to play in bringing an end to the Syrian conflict and if these two groups along with other smaller opposition parties can come together, success will be all the more likely.
I conclude my article by reference to its title, unless the opposition parties come together, in strength the future of Syria is bleak. It is bleak because security is deteriorating, and Assad is losing grip. The international community must recognise the danger and the risk of sectarian war with all its ramifications, in an area so precious and strategic.